A mother's nurture may provide powerful protection against risks her baby faces in the womb, according to a new article published online today in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The research shows that fetuses exposed to high levels of stress hormone shown to be a harbinger for babies' poor cognitive development can escape this fate if their mothers provide them sensitive care during infancy and toddler-hood.
The new study represents the first, direct human evidence that fetuses exposed to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may have trouble paying attention or solving problems later on. But what may be more intriguing is the study's second finding that this negative link disappears almost entirely if the mother forges a secure connection with her baby.
"Our results shape the argument that fetal exposure to cortisol which may in part be controlled by the mother's stress level and early caregiving experience combine to influence a child's neurodevelopment," said study author Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry and of Psychology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and director of the Wynne Center for Family Research. "If future studies confirm these findings, we'll need to not only engineer ways to reduce stress in pregnancy, but we'll need to also promote sensitive caregiving by moms and dads."
A Mother's Love
For the study, researchers recruited 125 women at an amniocentesis clinic in an urban maternity hospital, taking a sample of their amniotic fluid so that stress hormones in it could be measured. The mothers were at 17 weeks gestation on average; only mothers with normal, healthy pregnancies and subsequent deliveries were followed.
When their children reached 17 months of age, researchers administered a Bayley infant developmental scale test, which relies on puzzles, pretend play, and baby "memory" challenges to gauge youngsters' cognitive development. They
|Contact: Becky Jones|
University of Rochester Medical Center